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What, Exactly, Is the Presumption of Innocence?

How can you be presumed innocent of a crime?

I mean, there's an allegation.  Somebody - oftentimes multiple people - will claim that you did something illegal.  Perhaps the crime has been caught on video.  Perhaps you even confessed to the crime.

So, regardless of all the evidence against you, how can it be that the criminal justice system believes that you are innocent of the charges?

One of the fundamental rights in our system of criminal justice is that every person accused of a crime, whether it's jaywalking or first-degree murder, is presumed innocent of those charges.  That presumptions remains with the accused person only until they plead guilty to the charges or the government is able to prove the accused guilty beyond and to the exclusion of every reasonable doubt.

The presumption of innocence is a revolutionary concept in criminal justice.  In many parts of the world, if you are arrested and charged with a crime, you are presumed guilty of the charges unless you are able to prove your innocence.

Now in our system of justice, there is no such thing - legally speaking - as innocence.  You get two choices on a verdict form - guilty or not guilty.  There is no box marked "innocent."  That's because to find somebody innocent would inadvertently place a burden on the accused to prove their innocence.  The system places no burden of proof on the accused.  The government - whether a state prosecutor, local prosecutor, or federal prosecutor - must provide sufficient evidence to a finder of fact that is enough to overcome the presumption of innocence.  Only if and when that occurs does the presumption of innocence fade and the accused can then be found guilty.

Since more than 90% of all criminal cases in the United States are resolved by way of a plea bargain, the presumption of innocence is often waived voluntarily.  If the evidence is sufficient to convict, most competent criminal defense attorneys will negotiate a deal with prosecutors that will guarantee the client a lesser sentence.  

The presumption of innocence doesn't exist to demean victims or to call into question their honesty.  The overwhelming majority of crime victims are, in fact, crime victims.  And they deserve to be heard, they deserve dignity and respect, and they deserve to remain informed of the development of a case as the accused goes through the court process.

What the presumption of innocence does is it recognizes the awesome power of the government.  Prosecutors and law enforcement agencies have nearly endless resources.  They can easily destroy a person's life.  In order to level the playing field and to keep the government accountable for its prosecutions, the government must be able to prove each and every element of each and every crime charged beyond and to the exclusion of every reasonable doubt.  The accused has no obligation to testify or to put on a defense of any kind.  That is why the only two choices can be "guilty" or "not guilty."  The verdict form is an evaluation of the state's evidence. 

Not a referendum on the defense.

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